Princeps fury, p.46
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       Princeps' Fury, p.46

         Part #5 of Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher
 

  Behind the Legions came the Vord.

  The front edge of the enemy pursuit was a ragged line, the swift-moving Vord as slowed and separated by the horrible footing as the fleeing Alerans. But the farther back from that front edge one looked, the more coherent and organized the Vord became. The lizard-wolf creatures ran together in ranks, centered around the enormous hulking mass of the Vord warriors, or around the still-larger giants that covered the ground in strides yards long. Overhead swarmed the black-winged form of hundreds of vordknights, clashing and skirmishing with Knights Aeris covering the retreating Legions.

  The three bars of Legion steel were badly outnumbered by their pursuers, but the black-and-scarlet banners flying from the center Legion flew bravely in the breeze, and the discipline of the troops held them in good order as the foe closed in on them.

  "Bloody crows," Antillus Raucus breathed. "Crows and bloody furies."

  "Do we attack?" Lady Placida breathed.

  Gaius Isana, First Lady of Alera, nudged her horse to stand between Aria's and Raucus's. "Of course we do," she said in a firm voice, ignoring the twinge of discomfort from the still-tender wound in her stomach. "I didn't go through all of this and march these Legions all the way down from the Wall to stand around and watch things happen."

  High Lord Antillus's mouth spread into a wolfish smile. "Looks like the boys are going to earn their pay today, then."

  "Look at the banners in the center Legion," Lady Placida said. "Do you know who that is?"

  "An Aleran," Isana said, her tone steady. She felt Araris's steady presence at her back, and looked over her shoulder to find him, on his horse, hovering a few feet away from her, his eyes focused on nothing and everything at the same time. "An Aleran in trouble." She turned to Raucus, and said, "Attack, Captain."

  Raucus nodded sharply. His horse danced a step sideways, evidently picking up on his rider's excitement. "I recommend we wait, Your Highness," he said. "Let them advance another mile down that causeway, and I'll leave those ugly things in pieces."

  Isana felt the confidence flowing from him, and arched an eyebrow. "You're sure?"

  "They're coming with maybe thirty thousand troops. I've got three standing Legions, three Legions of veteran militia, better than a thousand Knights and every bloody Citizen in Antillus. Pieces, Your Highness," Raucus replied, vicious satisfaction in his voice. "Little ones."

  "As you think best, High Lord Antillus," Isana said.

  He threw back his head and laughed. "Hah! That's a good one." He turned his horse and said, "There are preparations to make. If you will excuse me." He saluted Isana and turned his horse--then hesitated, glancing back at Isana.

  "Your Grace?" Isana asked.

  "It's a battle. Things can happen." He reached into his coat and withdrew an envelope. It was brown with water stains and brittle with age. He held it out to her and said, "In case I'm not able to give it to you later." He nodded to them. "Ladies."

  Isana took the envelope and watched as Raucus rode back to his senior centurion and the captains of his Legions.

  "What is that?" Aria asked.

  Isana shook her head. "I think it's . . ." She opened the letter hurriedly--and instantly recognized Septimus's liquid, precise handwriting.

  Raucus,

  My insides are whole again, and I'm getting ready to leave the back end of nowhere. I expect that the holders here in Calderon will be just as happy to see the Crown Legion go. Too many handsome young men for all these pretty young hold-girls to resist--which reminds me that I've been meaning to tell you that I've got a surprise for Father. He's going to choke on it, but Mother will make him see reason. More later, old friend, but I'll need you to find some time to cover my flank during an important engagement.

  Murestus and Cestaag just got back from Rhodes. I had them following the money trail of those cutters I told you about. They didn't find anything that could go to a court, but I think I might like to visit Rhodes and Kalare with a few good friends once I wrap up my current obligations. Interested? I wrote Attis already, and he's in.

  Invidia got my letter. She was furious that I told Father no, though you had to read between the lines to see it. You know how she is--polite and cold as a fish, even when she's about to beat someone senseless. Father will be in a rage about me turning her down, though what else is new? To tell you the truth, though, I was never really sure about her. Oh, gorgeous, intelligent, strong, elegant, everything Father thinks I would need. But Invidia just doesn't give a crow's feather about people in any sense other than how they can profit her. It means she fits right in with everyone at the capital, but at the same time, I'm not sure she's entirely sane.

  Give me passion--and compassion--any day.

  I'm glad I can write you. There are fewer and fewer people I can speak my heart to, these days. Without you and Attis, I think I'd have lost my bloody mind after Seven Hills.

  Here's truth, old man.

  The next few months are going to bore future students of history at the Academy for decades.

  The three of us will get together again with the old gang from the fencing hall--minus Aldrick. Then we'll sort some things out.

  Are you in, snowcrow?

  Sep

  PS--How's the little snowcrow? He set anything on fire yet? When do I get to meet him? And his mother?

  Isana stared at the letter and blinked away tears.

  Septimus. She could hear his voice as she read the words.

  She sniffed before anything could dribble down her nose and looked at the date on the letter. A second letter was visible in the envelope. She opened it and read it is as well.

  The handwriting was not Septimus's. It was angular, sharply leaning to the right, and in places the paper had been torn, as if the quill had been pressed too viciously to the surface of the fine paper upon which it was written.

  Raucus,

  By the time I got wind of anything and made it to Calderon, it was hours too late. But I was there when they found him. I know that by now the official story has reached you, but it's nothing but smoke.

  Septimus died with five of the finest blades in the Realm in a circle around him. And it wasn't the Marat alone who did for him. Firecrafting and earthcrafting were both involved. I saw it with my own eyes.

  Septimus was the only heir, and his father was arrogant or incompetent enough to allow him to be murdered, despite Septimus's appeals for his aid, for pressure upon the Senate, for direct action against the ambitious bastards who eventually killed him. The First Lord did nothing, and our Realm is doomed to division and self-destruction as a result. He doesn't deserve my loyalty, Raucus. Or yours.

  I know you won't believe me, you slow-witted northern snowcrow. And even if you did, you'd never come with me down the road I've chosen.

  If the House of Gaius can't defend and protect its own child--and a soul like Septimus's at that--then how can it do so for the people of the Realm?

  I don't ask you to help, old friend.

  Just stay out of my way.

  Good-bye.

  Attis

  "My Lady Isana?" Araris asked quietly.

  Isana blinked and looked up from the letter.

  Behind them, the Antillan Legions prepared for battle, men rushing about with the calm hurry of practiced professionals. On the fields below, the Vord had engaged the surviving Legions. Isana watched as the First Aquitaine, banners surrounding High Lord Aquitainus Attis himself, literally threw itself into the teeth of the pursuing Vord and stopped them cold, not a hundred yards from the slowest of the fleeing refugees.

  "Attis Aquitaine was never his enemy," Isana breathed, her voice numb. "Rhodes. Kalare."

  "Isana?" Aria asked.

  Isana wordlessly passed her the letters. "A week. It's dated a week before we wed. He was almost the same age Tavi is now."

  Aria read the letters. Isana waited until she looked up again.

  "Rhodes and Kalare," Aria said. "Gaius killed Kalarus personally. And he as much as
sent Rhodes out to be butchered by the first Vord attack."

  "Revenge," Isana said quietly. "It took him more than two decades, but the old man had it all the same." She shook her head. "And Invidia Aquitaine had sought marriage to Septimus. I never knew that. He never said anything." Isana smiled faintly, bitterly. "And he spurned her. For a steadholt girl from the back end of nowhere."

  "She was a part of it," Aria whispered. "The cabal that killed him. That's what Septimus's letter means. If one reads between the lines."

  "Citizens and lords," Isana sighed. "Wounded pride. Ambition. Vengeance. Their motivations seem so . . . average."

  Aria smiled faintly and nodded toward Raucus, who was the center of the swirl of activity. "I think you've been given ample opportunity to observe that Citizens and lords can be idiots as easily as anyone else. Perhaps more so."

  Isana gestured at the letters. "Read the letter. It's in every flourish and scratch. Attis hated Gaius. Hated the corruption, the ambition of his peers."

  "And became what he hated," Aria said quietly. "It's happened to many men before him, I suppose."

  Fire blossomed in the midst of the First Aquitaine, the light of a burning sword that was clearly visible, even from that distance, in broad daylight. The Legion roared in response, the sound distant, like the surge of waves crashing on a shoreline. The Legion drove into the mass of the Vord, killing and crushing, lances of fire lashing into the largest of the Vord, spheres of white-hot flame enveloping the heads of the behemoths and sending them crashing down to crush their fellows.

  Cavalry alae, launched from the Legions flanking the First Aquitaine, pressed into the gap, harassing and crushing the disordered Vord--while the Legion re-formed and retreated, screened by the shock of the cavalry's charge. The Legion withdrew perhaps three hundred yards from its original stand against the Vord and reset its lines as the cavalry retreated, in turn, behind them.

  Again the Legion clashed with the Vord, who were coming thicker and in greater coordination. The First Aquitaine was joined by its brother Legions on either side--Second Placidan, Isana thought, and the Crown Legion, judging by the banners. Again, the Vord were driven back. Again, the cavalry charged and covered the infantry's withdrawal. Another three hundred yards were gained--but more and more armored forms were being left still and silent on the ground, to be overrun by the inhuman foes.

  Isana watched as the Legion repeated its maneuver against the enemy, but each time the Vord came more thickly, and each time the Legions gained less ground before they were forced to turn and face them again.

  "Why hasn't Antillus attacked yet?" she asked. She looked over her shoulder to Araris, who waited patiently at her back. "If they don't move soon, the Legions down there will be destroyed."

  Araris shook his head. "No. Aquitaine's got them right where he wants them." He pointed at the thickening lines of the Vord. "He's tempting them into concentrating, readying for a final push."

  "Bloody right he is," Antillus Raucus said, riding his horse closer, and surveying the battlefield below. "His fliers have spotted us up here. He's gathering all those great bloody bugs into one place so that I can--" He smashed one fist into the open palm of his other hand, the sound shockingly loud in the comparative quiet of the hilltop. "Not bad work," he added, in a tone of grudging admiration, "for someone who isn't much more than an amateur."

  "How long?" Araris asked him.

  Raucus pursed his lips. "Five minutes. Next retreat, they'll push up, and we'll have them." He signaled one of the Legion staff waiting nearby and called, "Five minutes!"

  The call went up and down the lines of troops and officers, spreading with rapid and precise discipline. Antillus nodded to himself, a sense of confidence and satisfaction radiating from him, now that he was close enough for Isana to sense his emotions. He cleared his throat, and said, "Your Highness?"

  "Yes?"

  "May I have a moment to speak to you alone?"

  Isana arched an eyebrow, but inclined her head to him. "Lady Placida. Araris. Would you give us a moment, please?"

  Aria and Araris both murmured assent and walked their horses several yards away. It wasn't solitude, precisely, but it was as close to a private conversation as they were likely to come by, in the midst of an army preparing to move.

  "You never asked me," Raucus said bluntly. "You never asked me why I had given the order to bring my Legions south. Why I had decided to trust my people's safety to your word. You just got out of bed and demanded a horse so you could come along."

  "Politely," Isana said. "I demanded politely. I distinctly remember using the word 'please.' "

  Raucus showed his teeth when he laughed. "Crows and bloody furies. It looks like Septimus knew what he was talking about after all."

  Isana returned his smile. "I assumed you would tell me when you were ready."

  "You never asked why I was . . . so set against you, either, when you came to the Wall."

  "I assumed the same."

  He gestured at the letters she once again held in her hand. "You read them?"

  "Of course."

  "You could have been with them," he said, simply. "You could have been one of the treacherous slives who killed him. Get a child on him, kill him, and put the child on the throne once he was grown. "

  Isana drew in a slow breath. "Do you think that now?"

  Raucus shook his head. "I followed you here because of what you showed me on that field at the foot of the Wall."

  "What was that?"

  The High Lord stared at her for a moment, and then out at the desperate battle unfolding below them. "Any man with a brain in his head looks for three things in anyone he'll follow: will, brains, and a heart." His eyes grew distant. "Gaius has the first two. He's one fearsome old cat." He gestured at himself. "I've the first and last. But those things aren't enough. Gaius never felt much for his people. He had their fear and respect. Never their love. I took care of my men as best I could. But I let my fear for them blind me to what else was happening."

  "I still don't understand," Isana said gently.

  "Septimus had all three, lady," Raucus replied. "You showed me your will when you stayed my attack on the Icemen, and when you challenged me and wouldn't back down. Even when you bloody well knew you should have.

  "You showed me your heart when you fought me as you did--to the death, without flinching. When you lay bleeding with--" He shook his head, as though flinching from the image, but forced himself to continue. "With my sword in your guts. But your concern was for me. I felt it in you. It was no act, lady. You were willing to die to open my fool eyes. There was no scheme in that, no puppet strings. You meant what you said."

  "Yes," Isana said simply.

  "That's two," Raucus said. "But when I realized that you staged the whole thing to happen where the Icemen could see--and bloody sense everything that was going on, you showed me you had the brains as well. Sunset came alone into my personal chambers, after we'd seen to your wounds, and gave me his hand and his word that his folk would abide by the truce until we returned from battling the Vord." Raucus shook his head, and a small note of what might have been wonder entered his voice. "And he meant it. It won't resolve everything overnight. Maybe even not in my lifetime, but . . ."

  "But it's a start," Isana said.

  "It's a start, Your Highness," Raucus said. "Septimus, my friend, chose you. And chose well." He bowed his head to her, and said, simply, "I am yours to command."

  "Your Grace," Isana said.

  "Highness?"

  "These creatures have destroyed our lands. Murdered our people." Isana lifted her chin. "Pay them for it."

  When Antillus Raucus looked up, his eyes were hard, cold, and clear. "Watch me."

  CHAPTER 42

  Once Lady Aquitaine and the Vord queen were gone with their retinues, the courtyard was strangely silent. Only a handful of Vord remained, along with a similarly reduced contingent of collared guards--and the prisoners, of course.

  Of wh
ich, Amara was very much aware, she herself was currently the most endangered.

  She shivered in the cold, her muscles aching from the effort, hardly able to do more than curl her body up as tightly as possible to keep from succumbing to the chills.

  "You and your husband crippled my father," Kalarus Brencis Minoris said in a quiet, deliberate tone. He walked toward her, the silver band of a discipline collar in his hand. "Not that there was a great deal of love lost between Father and me, but my life grew harder after the old slive was trapped in his bed. Do you have any idea how much damage you had to do to his spine to leave him broken like that?"